Two and a half stars (out of four)
Rating R (intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence)
Godzilla makes a welcome return in an update by director Gareth Edwards, but despite the film’s impressive visual effects, the giant lizard of Japanese lore too often takes a back seat to a bunch of boring humans.
Edwards got the job on the merits of 2010’s “Monsters,” an alien invasion flick that conjured up convincing sci-fi beasties on a small budget. That film was satisfyingly character driven with the extraterrestrials serving as a backdrop for human drama. The same cannot be said for “Godzilla,” which features frustratingly passive homo sapiens and sporadic thrills, thanks to some massive monster mash-ups.
Yes, that’s mash-ups plural. In this latest version of “Godzilla,” more than one primordial predator prowls the U.S. — or a large swath of Nevada and California, anyway — squashing skyscrapers underfoot as if they were bugs. To say more would spoil the surprise.
The movie begins with a long, exposition heavy introduction, circa 1999, as a pair of anxious scientists, played by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins, investigate a mysterious underground phenomenon in the Philippines. Could the radioactive spores uncovered during a mining operation be connected to a disaster at a Japanese nuclear power plant? You bet Bryan Cranston’s wig they are!
A panicked and manic Cranston plays Joe Brady, an engineer who survives the meltdown, but remains scarred for life. Fifteen years later, he is still trying to prove the incident wasn’t just the aftermath of seismic tremors. His crazy conspiracy theories get him into trouble, forcing his grown son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), to leave his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and child (Carson Bolde) and jet off to Japan to bail him out.
Meanwhile, the military — headed up by poor David Strathairn’s stressed-out admiral — launches an inept defense against the ancient behemoths as they ravage one major city after another, lured by the radiation they thrive upon. Strathairn is concerned about civilian casualties while Watanabe’s monster-loving scientist sagely admonishes, “Let them fight!”
Edwards is going for the slow build here, taking his sweet time before revealing the first image of the mythical creature we’ve all come to the cineplex to see, a suspense-ratcheting approach that worked beautifully in venerable monster romps such as “Alien” and “Jaws.”
The director capitalizes on brief glimpses of Godzilla’s primordial spines arching out of the water, but an excellent cast urgently intoning dull dialogue about electromagnetic pulses and the balance of nature proves a poor substitute for the movie’s massive, scaly main attraction.
When Godzilla finally does make his official entrance, he doesn’t disappoint. There’s something classic about Edwards’ interpretation of the gargantuan radioactive reptile that harkens back to the beast’s creature-feature debut in 1954’s “Gojira.” The sight of his hulking, craggy frame emerging from San Francisco Bay, inch by inch until he unleashes a mighty roar, is startling but also comfortingly familiar. With its larger-than-life scale and rumbling sound, IMAX 3-D is the appropriate medium in which to revisit this beloved monster movie icon.
Max Borenstein and David Callaham’s script is far more interested in its eponymous titan than in the puny actors who spend their time gawking, awestruck, at the magnificent beast. Taylor-Johnson and Olsen are promising performers, but they have never been so bland as in this movie, which literally gives them nothing to do.
In a series of ridiculous coincidences, Taylor-Johnson’s Navy bomb specialist merely happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time over and over again, from Godzilla’s epic, tidal-wave inducing stomp-fest in Honolulu to the lizard’s final, concrete-smooshing stand in San Francisco. Occasionally, Ford threatens to actually save someone, like his family or a lost little boy, but the situation inevitably resolves itself, deus ex machina.
Edwards is at his best when he abandons his human players in favor of his colossal, computer-generated stars. The director gives us an eye witness view of the creatures so we ogle them through the windshield of a car, the rain-streaked window of a skyscraper or a paratrooper’s steamed-up goggles. This fresh perspective and a gritty knack for effects that feel tactile and realistic ensure this new “Godzilla” never becomes the joke that Roland Emmerich’s 1998 reboot was.
The 2014 “Godzilla” doesn’t dwell on the sort of over-the-top, mindless destruction that Emmerich is notorious for, but it occasionally traffics in the same cheap tricks, like scenes of children and dogs in peril. It also has a tendency to take itself too seriously.
Critics can snipe all they want about last summer’s Kaiju smackdown, “Pacific Rim,” which inspired Edwards’ reboot but underperformed at the box office. When it came to colossal critter carnage, that movie really knew how to have fun.
Photo: Warner Bros.